Thursday, December 8, 2011

Element of the Month: Potassium!

December's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 39.0983  amu
Melting Point: 63.38 °C
Boiling Point: 579 °C

There are lots of cool things about Potassium, such as that you've heard of it and that its chemical symbol is "K." You can't help but love Potassium, because you are 1/400th it! (The same is true of anyone you've ever been in love with.) It's tied (with Sulfer) as the seventh most common element in your body, although if you went on a truly serious Doritos binge it might drop behind Sodium for a while if my math is correct. Compare that with these fancy Swedish Elements we've been studying lately! You don't have any Ytterbium in your body! At least, you shouldn't.

No doubt Potassium has incredibly esoteric uses in the alloying and metallurgic biz, but it's important in more fundamental ways too. For instance, it's essential for neural transmission, basic metabolism, and cell function. Don't leave home without it. But not to worry: it's one of those dietary minerals that is kind of hard not to get enough of, so long as you are eating normal foods, but there's apparently some evidence that a little more Potassium in the diet may keep strokes at bay.

The Centerfold!

(Photo by Wiki guy "Dennis S.K.," used under one of those open licence dealies.)
Most industrial Potassium production goes into fertilizer, because while you and I are only 1/400th Potassium, plants are up to 1/50th of the stuff. The fertilizer is a Potassium compound, though, such as Potassium Chloride or Sulfate or Nitrate. Elemental Potassium itself is -- wait for it -- a soft, silvery metal. People don't like to keep a lot of it on hand, because it reacts quickly with oxygen to form a Potassium "superoxide" which is, like, tremendously explosive. And Potassium reacts violently with water, which creates lots of hydrogen that starts burning and creating more heat that sustains the reaction and, well, the point is, you don't just leave raw potassium sitting around on the mantlepiece.

Oh, did I mention that Sir Humphry Davy first isolated elemental Potassium in 1807? He did. And a couple of months later, he isolated Sodium. In 1808, he isolated Calcium. Then he did Magnesium, Boron, and Barium, and proved that Chlorine was its own Element and not an Oxygen compound like everybody thought. He was also a respected poet, and he invented a lamp that saved countless thousands by dramatically reducing the incidence of mining explosions. What have you been up to lately?

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